The Wool Mediaeval Altar Frontal
The Wool Mediaeval Altar Frontal, like the Coombe Keynes Chalice, is
part of Britain’s, and our church and parish's, history.
Our Altar Frontal was committed to the care of
County Museum in 1886. It is is too fragile to be left on public
display but Dorset County Museum has published the following information which
fortunately now includes several photographs of the frontal, images that were
previously not available.
This is adapted for
our website but for the original article copyright to Dorset County Musem, see:
There is a glossary at the bottom of this
page, which may help with the words in blue
italics, that are possibly unfamiliar.
The Altar Frontal from Wool Church
Description from 1933
From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological
Society’ Volume 55 1934, an article written by the G. DRU DRURY, M.R.C.S.,
L.R.C.P., F.S.A entitled ‘The Altar Frontal From Wool Church.’ (Read the 21st
day of November, 1933.) (Our headings and italics/bold do not form part of
This interesting altar
frontal is made up from portions of
vestments, which local tradition would have us believe came
from the neighbouring Cistercian Abbey of Bindon.
In the year 1886 the Vicar and Churchwardens of the Church of the Holy
Rood, Wool, placed it with the Dorset County Museum, and being extremely
fragile, it was carefully repaired by Mrs. Stillwell the following year.
The descriptive references by Hutchins and his continuators are scanty and
inaccurate; and the fact that, during the 47 years our museum has sheltered
this fine example of mediaeval embroidery, no adequate description has been
attempted can only be regarded as a reproach, with the object of removing
which this paper has been written. Several doubtful points were cleared-up by
a visit to the Department of Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with
a photograph of the frontal; and I take this opportunity of recording
gratefully my indebtedness to Mr. C. E. C. Tattersall for his kindness and
courtesy on that occasion.
The most gratifying fact established was that the embroidery is undoubtedly
English, though the velvet was probably all imported from Italy. Most of the
work dates from the end of the 15th century; and some of it may even be 16th
century, the figures on the second and fourth strips being just about as late
as any pre-reformation type. The frontal is composed of eight approximately
equal vertical strips joined together to fit an altar 4ft. 6ins. in length by
3ft. high. These strips differ both in design and material, four being of
velvet and four of linen, but in the latter case, not all of the same texture.
The first strip (from the left-hand side) is of blue velvet, the
pile of which has nearly all worn off. It is embroidered with coloured silks
and gold thread in a design of “fish flowers” and sprays. The name” fish
flower” is derived from the fancied resemblance of the central portion to the
inverted body and tail of a fish. The rich blue of the velvet still survives
in the centres of the two flowers and where it has been protected by the
sprays here and there. It is not difficult to imagine this as part of a
sumptuously decorated chasuble; in
fact there is in the Victoria and Albert Museum a red chasuble of late 15th
century date which is embroidered with practically the same design.
Third, fifth and seventh strips
The third, fifth and seventh strips are all from one piece of
velvet—probably from a cope—once a
rich purple but now faded to a brown colour. The design of “pine flowers” and
sprays is finely embroidered in coloured silks, the heads of the flowers being
of white linen appliqué and worked over. Comparison with a cope of purple
velvet in the Victoria and Albert Museum which, though still definitely
purple, – has faded in places to a colour nearly resembling these strips,
confirms this opinion as to their original colour, in spite of the fact that
Hutchins mentions brown velvet. Furthermore Mr. Tattersall reminded me that
though red, blue, green or purple vestments are frequently mentioned in the
inventories of church goods of 1552, brown is unknown.
Second and fourth strips
The second and fourth strips are parts of
orphreys made of rather coarse linen
embroidered with silks in the designs of figures standing on the ground,
beneath architectural canopies, the style of which dates them as late 15th or
early 16th century work. Some of the orphreys of English work of this period
in the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit canopies similar to these in general
form, in the character of the vaulting beneath the canopy arches, and in the
round-headed recesses of the shafts. It will be noticed that the figures on
these two strips face inwards towards each other, doubtless because they
formed parts of orphreys from the front of a cope, but not all the panels are
complete as to their tops and bases. It is not easy to determine whether these
bearded figures represent prophets, apostles or saints, much less to assign
them names. None of them have ecclesiastical vestments and with one exception
they wear a nondescript kind of “traditional” costume, of forgotten origin
after generations of copying; possibly in like manner the very identity of the
persons represented may have meant little to the worker who carried on the
The top figure of the second strip carries a spear and wears a large
flat-topped hat, his hair and beard are white. The middle figure, who carries
a long-handled axe, also has white hair and beard, but appears to have a halo
rather than a hat; the upper part of his canopy has been cut off, consequently
it is not certain that his position in relation to the figure above is the
original arrangement. The lowest figure with brown beard and small pointed hat
might (as has been supposed – Hutchins’s History of Dorset, 3rd Edition, Vol.
1, p. 361.) represent Moses holding the tables of the law in his left hand and
a rod in his right.
On the fourth strip the top figure with a long brown beard is
dressed as a merchant with a belt and gypcière,
his turban hat has a long liripipe
which depends below the level of his right knee. The second figure with white
hair and beard has a halo and grips a long knife and may perhaps represent St.
Bartholomew. The lowest figure has brown hair and beard with ruddy cheeks, he
wears a tall pointed “Steeple” hat with a broad turn-up and carries a scroll
in his left hand.
Sixth and eighth strips
The sixth strip is also part of an orphrey, perhaps the central
strip of a chasuble. It has been rubbed very bare of its silk embroidery,
exposing the linen surface which is of very coarse texture. Two female saints
in veil and wimple are worked upon it; the upper figure bears a church in her
hands, the symbol of a foundress;
the lower one holds a cross in both hands and might perhaps represent St.
Helen. Their canopies are of an earlier type than those just mentioned.
The eighth strip is again part of an orphrey and is worked on linen
of fine texture. The design consists of two male saints, each adorned with a
blue halo, standing beneath canopies. The lower figure holds a chalice in his
left hand but the object held by the upper figure is not now recognisable
though it appears to terminate above in a small round knob. The canopy is only
complete in the case of the lower figure, and though this resembles in some
respects those on the sixth strip, it is not the same, the pediment has a more
stately pitch and the diaper work is better, and a date may be assigned to
this earlier in the 15th century than any of the others.
It would seem, therefore, fairly obvious that the sixth and eighth
strips belonged to different vestments, and it is a not incredible
supposition that the sixth strip, in so far as its canopy work is concerned,
may have been a rather poor copy of the eighth strip.
Two other vestments
But there are parts of yet two more vestments incorporated in the frontal.
On either side of the second strip a thin edging has been added consisting of
green and gold “cut velvet” while between the third and fourth strips there is
a similar edging of crimson and gold “cut velvet”. Both of these are Italian
and of 15th century date. The fragments, preserved between glass in the small
frame, came from the back of the Altar Frontal at the time it was repaired by
Mrs. Stillwell. With the Council’s permission I submitted them to Mr.
Tattersall for his opinion, and have since labelled them in accordance with
Nos. 1 and 2 are pieces of 15th century Italian velvet, doubtless from a
cope. The crimson pile, which is woven on at least two warps, is cut to show a
design in gold. A fine example of such a cope is to be seen in the Victoria
and Albert Museum. Nos. 3 and 4 are pieces of the green and crimson edging
dividing the strips, described above. The green velvet is much rarer than the
crimson. It was noticed that several of the vestments in the Victoria and
Albert Museum had an edging of this material round the bottom. Nos. 5, 6 and 7
are pieces of handwoven linen of various texture and colour, used as linings
for the frontal. To summarise briefly, it is definitely established that there
are incorporated in the frontal, parts of at least three vestments, probably a
chasuble and two copes, and parts of three different sets of orphreys; but
whether the orphreys belonged to these particular vestments or were taken from
others it is impossible to say.
The tradition of a connection with Bindon Abbey
Now in regard to the traditional connection with Bindon Abbey, what is the
evidence? It must be acknowledged at once that there is no real evidence and,
after all, it is hardly likely that there should be; nevertheless where a
strong local tradition exists in matters such as these it is unwise to ignore
The compilers of the 3rd Edition of Hutchins’s History of Dorset state that
“it was probably brought from Bindon Abbey”. Hutchins himself, in the 1st
Edition, states rather more explicitly “it is most probable it belonged to
Bindon Chapel and was preserved when that and the house were burnt in the
Civil Wars.” The house and chapel here referred to were built by Lord Thomas
Howard (created 1st Viscount Bindon in 1559) who “raised a fair house” out of
the monastery ruins. The actual position of this house and its domestic chapel
cannot now be determined with any certainty, but it seems probable that it
covered very much the same area as the present house within the Abbey
precincts. It was burnt down during the Civil Wars about the year 1644. A
return of Church utensils in 1550 belonging to this Bindon Chapel is quoted by
Hutchins, (Hutchins’s History of Dorset, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1, p. 352.) which
includes a pair of vestments and an altar cloth. Perhaps this may have been
the source of his idea. In the Inventory of Church goods of 1552 (Proceedings,
Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, Vol. XXV., pp. 210 &211.)
the ” Chapell of Byndon ” possessed “one payre of vestments of rede & gryne
saye” and “one alter clothe” In the same Inventory “The parische of Woolle”
had ” iiij payre of vestmentes with branchis of silke. ij copis with branches
” ” iiij aulter clothes ” : of which ” one cope and all the table clothes ”
were allowed for the church use.
On the face of it the supposition of the late Rev. W. Miles Barnes (Ibid,
p. 198.) would seem to be quite likely, viz.:—that these vestments and the
remaining cope were eventually made up into altar hangings after purchase from
the Commissioners, of which the frontal is all that now survives.
All the above information including the photographs was obtained from the
Dorset County Museum website and is copyrighted to Dorset County Museum. It was
downloaded from their website on 30th Aug 2015.
Dorchester Museum website:
Altar Frontal Article:
http://www.oxforddictionaries.com except where stated)
Altar front(al): A hanging or
panel, often decorative, covering the front face of the altar.
Chasuble: An ornate sleeveless
outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High Anglican priest when celebrating Mass.
Cope: A long, loose cloak worn by
a priest or bishop on ceremonial occasions.
Diaper: A pattern formed by small,
repeated geometrical motifs set adjacent to one another, used to decorate stone
surfaces in architecture and as a background to illuminations in manuscripts,
wall painting or panel painting.
Foundress: A woman who establishes
something, as an institution or religious order; founder.
Gypcière: Gypcières were small
pouches which were often fitted with metal frames, sometimes very ornamental,
hung from a belt or girdle, and were used as the purse of the Middle Ages.
Liripipe: A long tail hanging from
the back of a hood, especially in medieval or academic dress.
Mediaeval: Another word for the
Middle Ages. The period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in
the West (5th century) to the fall of Constantinople (1453), or, more narrowly,
from around AD 1000 to 1453.
Orphrey: An ornamental stripe or
border, especially one on an ecclesiastical vestment such as a chasuble.
(Chasuble: An ornate sleeveless outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High
Anglican priest when celebrating Mass.)
Vestment: A chasuble or other robe
worn by the clergy or choristers during services